Tevye’s Common Mistake

While not perfect, the audience can respect and root for Tevye in the Fiddler on the Roof. He has many admirable qualities as he does his best to love God and his family. At the same time, a critical blindspot remains. While he never learns his lesson, we can benefit from his mistake.

Tevye’s (and our) Blindspot

Tevye the Dairyman embodies kindness and loyalty, seeking happiness for his family. His compassion extends to his injured horse as he carries the load on his own back. He honors God the best he knows how, trying to fulfill his duties and even talks with Him throughout the day.

He expresses his worldview in the opening lines:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.

Tevye summarizes his understanding of life: we seek happiness while avoiding disaster. As he and the cast begin to sing “Tradtion,” they express moral duties that create boundaries for what they can do. He understands that we cannot seek our own happiness at the expense of others.

This sounds quite normal. What could possibly be wrong with his worldview?

Tevye does not consider the world outside of himself and his family. As he focuses on the “pleasant, simple” experience, he does not live with a mission or purpose. He does not seek to make the world a better place.

The songs further portray his (and the others’) myopic worldview. “To Life” emphasizes individual “prosperity, good health, and happiness”:

To us and our good fortune
Be happy, be healthy, long life

Tevye focuses on “if I were a rich man” rather than the “vast, eternal plan.” © MGM Studios

When singing his famous prayer earlier in the film, Tevye focuses on how his life would be easier and more enjoyable if he “were a rich man.” While cynically acknowledging that God has a “vast, eternal plan,” this could instead be the main subject of his song and his life’s ambition. He could ask, “What is your plan? What role do I have in it? How can I serve you in accomplishing your aims?”

Living on Mission

To understand Tevye’s lacking perspective, let’s look to his foil, Perchick, the communist who marries his second daughter. Upset with the small outlook of those in Anatevka, he argues they must look beyond their village, saying “you can’t close your eyes to what’s happening in the world.” Upset with injustice, he seeks to rally the people and hasten “the winds of freedom.”

While Perchik’s errs significantly in his politics, economics, and willingness to use violence, he shows that we must seek the greater good. He understands that evil fills the world and wants to bring goodness into it. Like him, we must seek awareness of suffering and seek to make the world a better place.

This contrast between Tevye and Perchik highlights an error in Tevye’s spirituality. Though Tevye believes in God, he does not truly surrender his life to serving God. Though tradition details his moral duty as it outlines “what God expects him to do,” he primarily views it as method for maintaining a happy life and avoiding hardship, as the way to keep his balance on the roof.

This is not only Tevye’s problem, nor is it a problem with Judaism. People in all faith traditions can fall into this trap, and I certainly see it among Christ-followers like myself.

Perchik shows we can seek a family while pursuing the greater good. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc.

When we approach life with our chief aim of having our happy, comfortable lives, we might as well deny God’s existence as we are not living life surrendered to Him. In fact, when we see God as a means to our personal goals, we make matters even worse.

Instead, we must have an outward focus, choosing to love God and others (and not just those in our family). Even though God gave Abraham the deepest desire of his heart, a family, the ultimate purpose of this was that “in [him] all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 12:3). This expresses a key principle in living a life on mission: we are blessed to be a blessing. Later Biblical heroes risk and even sacrifice their lives. Though Perchik espoused communism, he came the closest to the scriptural model of sacrificing one’s ideal life for the sake of others.

My Mistake

I want to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, if I’m honest, I’m usually more concerned with my role rather than being concerned that the world improves. In other words, even our outward service can center on pursuing our own fulfillment.

If I had a solo like Tevye, I’d find myself focusing on my personal aspirations and singing, “If I were an impactful man.” Nevertheless, like him, I need to care more about the “vast, eternal plan” than my life.

Understanding Suffering

Many problems flow from Tevye’s fundamental mistake (and mine), but I want to note one. Namely, his worldview has no place for understanding suffering.

When the purpose of life is to maximize pleasantness and minimize harm, it does not make sense that God would allow suffering. Nothing epitomizes this confusion like Tevye’s forlorn look to God after the Russian gentiles vandalize his daughter’s wedding reception.

While I critique Tevye’s worldview, I do not mean to justify the evil of antisemitism nor minimize the pain of those who experience it. Like Tevye, we must be appalled by it, and like Perchik, we must work against it and all forms of injustice. © Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc

Since Perchik understands that evil and suffering fill the world, he faces it head on, expecting to suffer in the process of making the world a better place.

Tevye’s naiveté contrasts with the Torah’s wisdom when he learns that the government arrested Perchik:

Hodel: [Perchik] cares nothing for himself. Everything he does is for other people.

Tevye: Yes, but if he did nothing wrong, he wouldn’t be in trouble.

Hodel: Papa, how can you say that? What wrongs did Joseph do? And Abraham and Moses? And they had troubles.

Since Tevye primarily views morality (outlined by tradition) as a way to avoid evil, i.e. how not to fall off the roof, he believes that bad things only happen to bad people. To him, morality serves as a means to an end.

Scripture, on the other hand, shows it is not a means to an end but the very point of life. Biblical authors express that the commands to love God and others embody all of morality, and that God created us to share in his love. His love guides us and empowers our actions. It even propels us forward into danger and suffering as it seeks to benefit others.

Summary

How will you live? What will you sing about and focus on? You can choose between:

  1. “If I were…”
  2. “Your vast, eternal plan”

If you’ve surrendered your life to God, have you reverted to an “If I were…” mindset, focused on your happiness and fulfillment? The Good News of Jesus is that you can confess this to God, and He forgives generously. Every time you slip, you can confess and ask the Holy Spirit to transform your focus.

If you have not surrendered your life to God, consider doing so. He longs to forgive you. He offers you a role in His “vast, eternal plan.” If, like Perchik, you’re already working diligently to make the world a better place, how could serving the God who is Love transform your efforts and impact?

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